[VIEWPOINT]Work Is Not Only About Making a Living

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[VIEWPOINT]Work Is Not Only About Making a Living

The introduction of the five-day workweek has been a hot issue lately. The labor-hour system, of course, is a very important issue. It turns out, however, that what kinds of values workers cherish are more important and more fundamental than whether they work five or six days a week.

There are two aspects to professional labor. One has to do with labor as a "means of livelihood." Labor to make a living is not a goal by itself and not a pleasure, but rather a pain. Instead, holidays and break times are pleasures. Accordingly, workers try to lessen labor hours and take more breaks. The other aspect is labor as a "means of self-realization." In other words, labor is a meaning of life or a goal of life. In this type of labor, professional labor has a value, a meaning and a pleasure. Accordingly, workers try to do their best work possible. Holidays are not a goal by themselves, but a preparation for more labor.

In so-called advanced countries, most people have vocational ethics and the philosophy that looks upon labor as a goal or a meaning of life, not a means of livelihood. How did they have such a vocational ethic? Religion and education played a great role, especially Protestantism in European countries and the United States. As is generally known, Martin Luther granted secular labor and professions with religious meaning. He saw labor and professions as a calling from God. He considered all professions God's will and regarded them as concrete expressions of love for one's neighbors. John Calvin took things another step by saying that professional labor is a religious behavior done to realize the glory of God on earth. In particular, Mr. Calvin thought that people could achieve the conviction of salvation only through rigid and ascetic vocational labor. Secular vocational labor is a way to attain religious salvation and confirm it. In that sense, vocational labor is a pious life itself.

Religion has played a great role in Japan, the only country in the 20th century to become an advanced nation from an underdeveloped one. Shosan Suzuki (1517-1655) said that all kinds of vocational labors reveal Buddha's appearance on the grounds that Mahayana Buddhism considers that everything in the universe is an incarnation of Buddha. All kinds of vocational labors are revealed through Buddha's behavior. Accordingly, all vocations are divine and equal and the self-realization of Buddha is beneficial to all people. Because people are Buddha, vocational labor is the self-cultivation and self-completion of people. In the end, the labor of farmers who sweat at cultivating their crops and merchants who sell goods honestly will benefit them as well as others as does Buddha's behavior. This is the way leading to Nirvana.

There were two ideal types of lives described in our history. One is a "successful career" as a philosophy of the ruling classes, the other is an "unworldly life" as an emotion of the suppressed people. But neither is labor-friendly or labor-respecting. In terms of a successful career, sweating physical labor is disdained. The "unworldly life" glorifies idling and eating without working in some senses. Basically, physical labor is looked down upon or at least shunned. In that sense, is it possible to improve industrial competitiveness in the international market and to build a wealthy nation with advanced technologies?

We have to correct this view. If we really want to be an advanced country, we should promote a right vocational ethics and a right labor philosophy. Unless we set this view to rights before we discuss the labor-hour issue, we cannot grow into an advanced country from a developing country. Religious leaders and educational leaders should reflect on what they have taught about the value of vocational labor. No matter how long it takes, we have to start from the basics on this issue.


The writer is a professor of law at Seoul National University.

by Park Se-il

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